Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A different kind of family tree

Since the summer solstice I've been a little more nostalgic than usual...thinking about the past, remembering students I've taught and colleagues from my years at Greenwood Elementary.  It seems I can't go anywhere these days without running into someone I know from ten, fifteen, even twenty years ago, and all of them have one common thread that was woven into place a long time ago. 
When I was a kid living in south Toledo, Mr. and Mrs. Bullock moved into a house on Eastwick Drive the same summer that my family did.  Having no children of their own, they quickly became like a second set of parents for my sisters and me.  We were always welcome to swim in their pool and enjoyed endless games of "Red Light, Green Light" all summer long while Mr. and Mrs. Bullock chatted with our parents over cocktails and hor d'oeurves.   The adults sipped their whiskey sours while my sisters and I roasted marshmallows for s'mores or chased after fireflies as the sun set, the Midwestern sky a blaze of orange and yellow.  Occasionally the Bullocks spent time with us during the holidays, and I have fond memories of several Christmases when they joined us for dinner and board games. 
Educators while in the classroom or out, Mr. and Mrs. Bullock set an example for me to follow when I showed interest in becoming a teacher.  They listened.  They cared.  And by example, they encouraged my love of children.  Years later, when I went to college to study education, Mr. Bullock was a principal at a Washington Local elementary school.  He invited me to Wernert during my holiday breaks so I could shadow one of his best teachers, and I fondly remember sitting in the corner of Judy's classroom, watching her enthusiastically work with her students.  Some of them even approached me for assistance, and it was then that I knew for certain I wanted to be a teacher instead of a veterinarian.  
          When I applied to Washington Local Schools five years later, Mr. Bullock was at the top of my reference list.  He reminded me throughout my career that it may have been his name that got me in the door for an interview, but it was my ability that secured the position.  And always, he was a staunch supporter of my success in the classroom.  Sadly, Mr. Bullock passed away in 2007, but his legacy lives on in my life and in the countless lives of his students, teachers, and friends. 

Last month I attended the funeral of Mr. Ken Bishop, who was the superintendent when I was hired by Washington Local.  Sitting in the sanctuary among dozens of former colleagues, I was amazed at how quickly time has passed since I left teaching sixteen years ago.  But still, it was effortless to pick up where I left off with the friends I had back then.  For now, more than ever, I've come to realize that every significant person in my life can be traced back to a connection with the people I know through Washington Local Schools. 
My wonderful friend and surrogate mother, Yvonne, sat next to me throughout the service, and I remembered all the long nights we had spent after school preparing for the next day's lessons, the endless hours we rehearsed for our annual First Grade Thanksgiving Feast, the times when Yvonne gave me much-needed advice and guidance as I made my way through my tumultuous twenties.  We still get together occasionally and her darling granddaughter is often a yoga student in my after-school classes.  I cannot imagine a kinder, more loving support as I make my way through my fabulous forties on the way to a brand new life.
Our friend, Sandy, wasn't there as she's now living in Canada, but I felt her with us in spirit, for she and I don't have to be in the same room -- or even the same country for that matter -- to feel connected.  Sandy's the one who taught me that I needed to lose my mind in order to find my soul, and I find myself in the midst of that lesson once again this summer.  But this time around, I'm embracing it instead of running away from it like I used to, so I'm certain we'll have much to celebrate when we take our long-awaited trip to Sedona next summer.
Greenwood's former principal, Mr. Baker, sat next to Yvonne and whenever I see him at retirement parties or Greenwood celebrations, I'm taken back to my early years as a sixth grade teacher when Mr. Baker graciously supported my uncommonly difficult experience all the while encouraging me to hone my skills and speak my truth.  He's still the best boss I've ever had and if he called me tomorrow and asked me to work for him again, I'd do it in a heartbeat. 

I'm a yoga instructor today because of an intense year I spent in 1996 working with a classroom full of challenging situations that made me want to quit my job.  After lamenting to a colleague about the stress I had to face each day, she said, "Take a yoga class."  I balked and said I didn't want to sit around and chant "Om" all day long...that I'd rather go for a run.  
But a week later, another friend suggested the same thing, and then another, and then another. So in the fall of that year, I ventured into a practice that has been nearly twenty years in the making.  When I left the classroom in 1999, and my small yoga business was just a fledgling in the nest, a plethora of Washington Local teachers flocked to my house and filled up the classes.  Even today I still teach a host of lovely ladies with whom I can relate, for my memories of what it feels like to be a classroom teacher haven't faded.  They say we teach what we need to learn, and in my case, that couldn't be more true.
In 2000, a Washington Local colleague suggested me for a position as a yoga instructor at a local Montessori school where I eventually taught hundreds of children and connected with a host of wonderful parents.  It was there that I met my pal, Satish, who has been a kindred spirit since the chilly December afternoon when I was teaching in his preschool classroom.  And I'm so thankful that, all these years later, his whole family has become an integral part of my life now...and for always.

Many of my Washington Local connections have evolved over time.  Some of them were put on hold for a while, only to deepen whenever I would run into someone around town or schedule a coffee date during summer vacation.  I've been in friends' weddings, held their babies on the day they were born, watched their kids grow up and attended their high school graduations.  I've warmly welcomed them into my home and gently let go when it was time for them to move away. 
It's been a mind-blowing experience to see my "kids", as many of my former students are now married with children of their own.  Just last week while hiking at Wildwood, I ran into the mother of a former first grader who was helping out with his three little ones.  She didn't recognize me at first, for as I often tell people, "I'm a different Kate now than I was all those years ago." 
But through all the shifts and changes, my Washington Local friends have been there every step of the way.  From my friend, Lisa, whose son was in my class at Greenwood, to my wonderful editor, Joyce, who taught at Jefferson Junior High, to Judy, who magically re-entered my life this spring, I'm blessed to be a part of a different kind of family tree, one that will continue to grow and flourish as time moves us ever onward.  
          How heart-opening it's been to be able to embrace that which was destined for me all those years ago when the Bullocks moved into their house on Eastwick Drive and set the stage for a lifetime of learning and healing.  
          A lifetime of enduring friendships.  
          A lifetime of love and grace.
It's a wonderful thing to know that after all this time, spending time with my Washington Local family still feels like home. 

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Long time sun

Long time sun
Originally published on June 17, 2013

As the days grow longer and the sun wakes me earlier each morning, I'm reminded that this weekend is the summer solstice.  In 2011, I began a seven part yoga series in which my students and I focus on one energy center, or chakra, of the body for twelve months.  Each year builds on what came before, integrating the lessons of each chakra and allowing that energy to expand throughout the whole of our being.  In 2011, we started with our roots, then last year, integrated the experience of the pelvis, low back and hips.  This year, we're focusing on the solar plexus, the home of our "inner sun."  
The solar plexus focuses on courage, self-worth, healthy personal boundaries, and individuation.  In my experience, this is perhaps the most challenging energy center to heal in the human experience, for entering the fire of the ego can be terrifying, but it's through this very profound burning that we can rise from the ashes, reborn and newly whole.
I've made some very radical choices in my lifetime and was often called "courageous" while in the midst of intangible transitions.  I didn't think so at the time.  To me, starting over again was easier than staying in a situation that was arduous and exhausting.  When I left Washington Local Schools, the human resources manager asked what I planned to do next.
"I honestly don't know," I replied. 
He lifted his brows.  "Aren't you afraid?"
I gave him a sad smile.  "I'm more afraid of what will happen if I stay."
That wasn't the first time I'd made a choice with little to no safety net, (and it certainly wouldn't be the last) but through it all, I discovered that I am indeed one brave lady.

Five years ago, I put my house on the market and drove west to start a new life in Big Sur.  What I remember most about that time now is not my time in California, but the trips to and from a place that would indomitably show me what I'm made of.   I drove by myself from Toledo across 80-90 in a little tin can that, in the seven years I'd owned it, made only a three hour road trip.  Now I had only five days to drive nearly 2,000 miles across desolate plains and through winding mountains, often with no cell service.  I had flown to California before, but had never driven further west than Indiana, and wasn't prepared for the paralyzing fear that gripped me every morning as I sat in ramshackle motel rooms willing myself to get out of bed. 
On the second day of my trip, I awoke in Wyoming to an April morning filled with grey clouds and a light snowfall.  I lay beneath the stiff white sheets and cried, terrified to get out of bed.  What if I got lost?  What if one of my tires blows?  What if the engine overheats because I've over-packed the car?   What if I've made the wrong decision and I'm totally screwing up my life?  But somewhere in the fog of anxiety, a clearer voice rang through, "Get up, Kate.  You can't go back just get going."
And so I did.
As I packed the car, the sun rose over the horizon.  A woman came out of the motel room next to mine, hauling a heavy suitcase.  We said "hello" to each other and our breath hovered in the chilly air.  As she turned her face to mine, I noticed one of her eyes was blackened and her jaw was purple and swollen.
"Are you alright?" I asked
She nodded. 
"Do you need help?"
She shook her head. "I'm fine, darlin.'  Just heading to my daughter's house.  I'll be safe there."
"Are you alone?" I asked, glancing toward her room.
"Yes."  She explained that she'd just left her husband the day before and this time, for good.  "I can do it now.  I'll be fine...thank you for asking."
 As I drove onto the highway, she was ahead of me for a while, then disappeared around a bend.  It was then that I began to understand the different kinds of courage we all must manifest to create changes.  Heaven knows what that woman would experience in the days and weeks to come and I prayed she'd continue to rely on the strength that had at least gotten her that far.
 One my friends from Esalen, a wise woman named Chie, taught me many things while we weeded the gardens and harvested herbs.  Chie was fierce in her insistence that I ignore the drama around me and continue to move forward in my own way.  Before she left to go back to Japan, her last words to me were, "You be keep going."    
A simple, yet profound statement, and one I continue to explore on my yoga mat, in relationships, and through the very complicated journey of writing a memoir.  How to be authentically myself and keep going in a world that often baffles me?  It takes stamina and faith that, while I may not know what's around the corner, I can stand on my own two feet and meet whatever comes with clarity.
Like anything, building courage is a lifelong process.  Once we meet what we're afraid of, we find out what we're made of...until the next lesson comes along and tests us some more.  While I no longer take blind leaps of faith, I have been known to strap on a parachute and do some sky diving now and then.  I've learned that time and experience are beautiful things, especially when they light the way onward.

This summer solstice, I hope you discover the "long time sun" within each one of you.  May all love surround you and may the pure light within you guide your way on.

Listen to Snatum Kaur sing "Long time sun"

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The rules of engagement

       Last summer I longed to be surrounded by more than a few good men.  Men who are trustworthy and kind.  Men who can say it like it is without hurting my feelings.  Men who know what they want, yet don't have to run roughshod over me in the process to create it.  It's taken a long while, but I've found the fruition in my faith that good men do exist.
Most of my classes are filled with women, and as a writer, the balance of my day is spent alone.  Except for the year I worked in the garden at Esalen, I've never really been in the company of men for long stretches of time.  And yet, while living on the edge in Big Sur, I learned that to be surrounded by masculine energy of all kinds is a healthier way to live.  In the eight years since my return to the Midwest, it's been one of the things that I've missed the most. 
I'm not shy, but I am introverted, and avoid bars, loud parties, and concerts.  My idea of unremitting hell would be to drive up to the University of Michigan with my wonderful neighbor, Rick, and sit with him in a stadium surrounded by 50,000 screaming fans.  I'm one of those people who'd much rather hang out in my own house and watch the game on television.  After all, the camera angles get you right into the heart of the action.  But I'd still need someone to explain the more subtle details of the game. 
I know what it means to sack the quarterback.  I know that "third down and eight" means the offensive team has one more play to move at least two more yards in order to keep possession of the ball.  I know that unsportsmanlike conduct results in a fifteen yard penalty.  But I don't know squat about MVP's, and I'm not quite sure I could explain what a safety is.  Still, as I am in life, I'm not necessarily interested in who wins, but I'm highly curious about strategy and know-how.   How to play without hurting myself or anyone else.  How to engage with the energy of the activity without being swallowed up in its momentum.
Which is why I'm so thankful to now be surrounded by men of all ages who share their perspective on sports, life, and living with kindness and clarity.

On the night of the NBA finals, I had the pleasure of hanging out with my pals, Satish and Danta, and three of their friends while they played a pick-up game of basketball in their driveway.  Ranging in ages from eight to twelve, the boys effortlessly chose teams, decided where the three point line would be, and established out-of-bounds on the makeshift court.  For over two hours I sat and marveled at how they played so well together.  Even though there were many times when the game was intense, they never ceased to amaze me with their good sportsmanship and cooperation.  I was reminded of all the years I loved teaching boys, simply to observe them interact with each other, to get a glimpse of what life is like on the other side of the coin. 
I don't have a brother and I didn't really play with a lot of boys in our neighborhood when I was a kid.  As an elementary education major in college, my classes weren't exactly overflowing with young men, and the experiences I had at fraternity parties left me disenchanted to say the least.  So when I have the opportunity to hang out with a bunch of fellas, no matter what their age, I'm always eager to listen more and talk less.
       I'm delighted that Satish, Danta, and their pals not-so-subtly revealed the rules of engagement...on and off the basketball court.  And I also discovered that little men have much to teach me about the ways of the bigger ones.  So here's a list of what I've learned by watching with fascination some of the best teachers I've had this year.

Play by the rules
     Establish boundaries right up front so everyone is on the same page.  Be clear about how the points will be tallied and who is keeping score.  Make sure your ref is honorable and unbiased.  Naturally everyone wanted Satish to ref the game because as one of his friends said, "He's always fair."
     I can vouch for that.  No matter what the game, no matter how much we may tweak the rules, Satish always follows them to the letter, even if it's not to his advantage.

Play hard
     After fueling up on pizza and strawberries, the boys were ready and raring to go.  They dribbled and dodged and sweat their way through play after play after play, never once letting up.  At one point I thought Satish might call it a day, but he got his second wind and before long was easily sinking lay-ups...shot after shot after shot. 
     I'm a pretty good endurance hiker, but I know I'd never last ten minutes with those little dudes. 

Be hospitable and gracious if you're the host
     At one point during the game, Danta disappeared into the garage when it wasn't his turn in rotation.  Moments later he rolled out a mini-trampoline and set it in the shade.  "This can be for whoever isn't playing," he beamed.  "It'll give you something to do while you're waiting!"  (I even had a turn...and yes, it was tons of fun!)
     A short while later when I went into the house to get something, I found Danta in the kitchen filling up water bottles for everyone.  "We don't have five, so I'll share with Satish." 
     "You're such a sweet guy," I told him, holding the door as he walked out carrying a pretty big armload for the smallest kid on the team. 

Don't hold a grudge
     Of course there were fouls and miscalls and minor yelling matches.  But I knew they weren't going to hurt each other, so I deferred to the kid who was chosen to be the ref unless I was blatantly asked, Was that ball out of bounds? or Did you see that foul?
     It was surprising that the boys could yell at each other one minute, then establish an almost instant common ground so they could quickly get back to the game.  None of them held a grudge or picked a fight or insisted they were right when they clearly knew they had made an error.  I was simply amazed at the almost instantaneous way the boys could scowl at each other in one moment, then chest thump in the next.

Call a timeout when you need to confer with your teammate
     Satish and his pal were playing the whole game as a team while the other three rotated in and out.  A few times they were so tired, they called a timeout and went to the other side of the yard to rest and talk about new strategies.  The other boys sat in the grass, drinking water and explaining to me what it means to "set a pick" on another player.  
     One of them was quick to say, "Danta's really good at that when Satish is trying to press break."  (Of course they had to define that term, too, but I picked up on it quickly enough when the game resumed.)

     This word has come up a lot for me this spring-into-summer...and mostly from the mouths of men who are driven to work hard and be incredibly present with the task at hand.  Many times during the game, one of the kids would yell at his teammate, "Focus, man!"  During free throws it was even more evident how well those boys could concentrate, even though opposing team members would try and distract them.  Great food for thought as I spend the summer editing someone else's memoir while a host of diversions cycle through my day.

Have fun
     Danta is my hilarious and articulate little guy, who can always come up with something amusing to share.  Throughout the game he'd continually shout out, "MARIACHI!  MARIACHI!"
     At first I thought it was a code word for a play, but one of the boys rolled his eyes, saying, "Every game Danta chooses some random word and yells it over and over again."
     "He's pretty smart, 'cause that's a good way to keep you a little off center," I smiled.  
     The boy sighed and shook his head.  "You never know what he's going to say."
     "One of the many things I love about him," I replied.  Then I yelled, "Hey, Danta!  Cucaracha Cucaracha! 
     This of course gave him a fit of giggles.

Have something to look forward to after the game
     My only task (besides being the person who tossed the ball for the tip off) was to be the timekeeper, so the fellas could finish the game before the start of the NBA final.  They didn't give a rip about the pre-game interviews or all of the commercials, so I was given careful instructions to let them know when it was exactly 9:05 PM.   
     They were planning to spend the night in a huge tent outdoors which was pitched near the huge family room window.  Through the open flap they could easily see the big screen TV and still be able to watch the fireflies come out.

Be a good sport
     The pick-up game ended in a nail-biting win by one point.  As Satish and his friend collapsed on the lawn, just having lost by one lay-up, I went over to congratulate them on how well they played as a team and the endurance it took to stay in the game the whole time instead of rotating in and out.  On my heels were the three other boys, slapping hands and saying, "Good game, man...good game."  Then all five of them eagerly thundered into the house, leaving their sneakers by the door and the basketball rolling on the garage floor.

Work as a team...on and off the court
     When Satish and Danta's dad came home, all of the boys happily went outside to help put up the tent.  Then as the basketball game started, they eagerly shared bowls of powdery cheeseballs and leftover slices of pizza.  They told me about the possibility of the Caveliers breaking their losing streak, and how LeBron James always plays better in the second half.  Milling in and out of the kitchen, the boys were all aware of each other and interacted in a way that revealed any discord on the court had long been forgotten. 
     Friends since they were babies, I imagine those boys will remain pals all of their matter where time and space might take them.       

Show your friends how much you care
   I've learned that girls tend to hug each other or sit closely when they play.  Boys chest thump and slap behinds and wiggle their fingers together when they're excited about a well-executed maneuver.  I've seen girls pick a fight to get what they want while boys set a pick to prevent what might happen next.  Girls giggle and whisper and talk for hours while boys yell and encourage and talk good-natured trash to each other. 
     It's not that one is better or more desirable than the other.  Still in my years as a teacher and a surrogate aunt, I've also figured out that girls tend to want personal connection in communication, while boys are more likely to listen if they're doing something along side the other person...even if it's squirting each other with a water bottle.

     So while I doubt you'll ever hear me cheering on the Wolverines from a seat in the stadium, I imagine come this fall I'll be over at Satish and Danta's, playing a game of touch football in the yard before we venture inside for food, fun, and frivolity while seeing what's going on in the Big House from their wonderfully welcoming house in the Heartland.




Tuesday, June 16, 2015


When I was younger, my mother loved to tell a story about my older sister's kindergarten woes.  An older boy waited for her at the bus stop and teased her mercilessly.  Sometimes she would come home crying; on other days, my sister refused to ride the bus to school.  I gave her suggestions about how to get him to stop, but with no success.  Even though I was only four, one day I asked Mom if I could go to the bus stop and show my sister how to take care of the problem. 
"Don't worry, Mommy," I said.  "I'll make him stop."
When I came back home, I told my mother that the boy would never bother my sister again. 
"What happened?" she asked.  "What did you do?"
"I told him to stop teasing people," I bluntly replied.  "Then I kicked him in the shins."
Sure enough, from then on, my sister could ride the bus, free from the taunts of the little boy who must have been terrified I would do worse than kick him if he ever dared to bother my sister again. 
Yes, I was sassy and I was naughty...and even though I no longer kick anyone in the shins, I often find myself standing up for the underdog, speaking up when I'm tempted to remain silent, and using laughter to bring honesty to a situation.

I thank God for my sense of humor.   William James very eloquently stated:  "Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing."  Born with an innate sense of verbal timing, I honed my comic ability by entertaining my mother, my grandparents, and my little sister, all of whom were a captive audience. 
Pa-pal, my maternal grandfather, used to bounce my sisters and me on his knee while babbling in an imaginary language, dropping in our names every so often to keep us curious.  The cadence and tenor of his voice was fascinating, and we giggled with delight every time he spoke his special "Pa-pal language."  I imagine this is one of the reasons I loved to read to my students and use a wide variety of accents and inflection. 
Once I was reading Miss Nelson is Missing with a great deal of expression.  The kids in Miss Nelson's classroom didn't show respect for their good-natured teacher, but when a nasty substitute named Miss Viola Swamp took her place, they quickly learned the error of their ways.  I was using a wicked voice for Miss Swamp when I noticed one of my first graders leaning over to the child sitting next to him.  "Oh my gosh...Miss Ingersoll's crazy!" he whispered.
I paused, bouncing my eyebrows for effect.  "Better crazy than boring."
Jon's eyes widened and he gave me a squeamish look, but on the last day of the school year when I asked what was the best thing he had learned in first grade, he eagerly replied, "I learned it's way better to be crazy than boring!"
 I have been both crazy and boring, often simultaneously.   There were years in my late twenties when, deep in the process of working through emotional garbage from the past, I thought I would never smile again.  But I've survived years of challenging life experiences due to the fact that I'm tenacious enough to dig deeper in the hopes of finding even a kernel of absurdity in my life's circumstances.      
I went from falling in love with a man named Terry who broke my heart, to working with a teaching partner named Mary who deliberately betrayed my trust by slandering my reputation in our school system.  She was soon followed by a teacher named Harry who manipulated circumstances so that I (and many other students) no longer felt welcome in his classes.  Then along came Jerry, a psychologist who blatantly said to me, "If you weren't my client, we'd be dating."  (I terminated therapy the following week...and no, we never dated either.)  Years later, a man named Barry was a hypocritical roadblock in my pathway to a workplace I dearly loved.  This all culminated in 2009, when I was providing undercover information to a narcotics officer named Detective Terry in the hopes that an imminent drug bust would rid my neighborhood of the heroin dealers who lived five feet from my home.  Naturally, he was of no real help.
Looking at the bigger picture, I can now laugh at the common thread that weaves them all together.  From Terry to Mary to Harry to Jerry to Barry and back to Terry again....round and round the circle of fire. 
And I swear, even though all the names have been changed, they still rhyme.
I can't make this stuff up.

I've long since let go of all that drama and have learned that to be sassy is to be resilient...and I'm not alone. 
Last Friday I had the pleasure of spending time with my pals, Satish and Danta.  While helping fix lunch I noticed a homemade tally board on the refrigerator that said something like "Satish's Sassy Chart."  It seems Satish's sister and cousin had created it to reveal just how many times my pal could come up with a good one liner in a day.  I laughed out loud when I saw how many marks he received in less than an hour.  Even though we were born thirty-odd years apart, the sassy apple doesn't fall far from the tree.  I've heard Satish repeat silly phrases I've said over the years and use them in hilarious context.  Verbally quick as lightening and with a razor sharp wit, Satish knows how to infuse any conversation with unpredictable, yet incredible humor.
"What's sassy mean to you?" I asked him, nodding toward the chart.
Satish gave me a little grin.  "Oh, you be a little sarcastic."
I nodded.  "And funny, too."
"Yeah...that, too."
"So how come you got so many on this day?"
Satish shrugged. "I don't know...guess I was being really sassy then."
"Too bad I missed it," I chuckled.
          After lunch we drove to the bookstore, and I listened intently for some sassyspeak from my Satish, but to no avail.  Yet later while playing The Game of Life with Danta, Satish and I marveled at how many pink pegs (representing daughters) he had acquired to put in his little plastic car.
"Wow!  Those are a lot of girls you've got in that thing, Danta," I smiled.
He dramatically rolled his eyes as he's not quite into the stage where girls are kinda fun.
"Yeah...that's 'cause he's a real ladies' man," Satish chortled.
"Go put a tally on your sassy chart," I laughed.  "That was a good one!"
But Danta didn't think so, and after a short wrestling session between the two of them, he quickly landed on a square that granted him a son.
"Whew!" Danta grinned.  "But still, all those kids are going to pay off at the end."
Ironically enough, neither Satish nor I had kids in the game, but I still won, having garnered the most money with my salary as a movie star...which I told them would be that last thing I'd want to be in this lifetime.  Still, after losing to both of them at chess earlier in the day, it was a nice way to balance our game-playing karma.  While it's no longer a kick in the pants (or the shins) to have an eight and ten-year-old smoke me at a game I've been playing for decades, I still enjoy being the top dog every six months or so...and they were both gracious in congratulating my win.
As I was leaving, I gave Satish a hug and a kiss, saying, "Can't wait for our next play date."  For it's great fun to hang out with a little fella who's just as much of a sassypants as I am.

Four-year-old Kate "a.k.a. Sassypants"



Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Biker babe

I just woke up from an incredible dream in which I was cruising with my friend, Tony, on his Harley up in the Irish Hills.  The sun was just beginning to set and as we drove up route fifty, the clouds overhead turned the most gorgeous shades of crimson and saffron.  Lush landscapes rolled out on either side of the highway and the scent of honeysuckle filled the air.  As I sat behind Tony, the wind whipping into my face, I was smiling...unafraid...deliriously happy.  For it wasn't just a dream, but a continuation of the wonderful ride we took yesterday.
This year has been unfolding as one that has invited me to face my fears.  The small ones.  The bigger ones.  The seemingly inconsequential ones that for some might seem silly.  I'm not afraid of spiders or public speaking or traveling long distances alone, but there are some things that get my stomach roiling just thinking about them. 
And riding a motorcycle has always been in my top ten.
For nearly three years Tony has been trying to convince me to go on a ride with him, but I've always politely declined, remembering the words an E.R. nurse once told me, "We call motorcyclists organ donors."  Her dad, Rick, is a friend of mine, too, and while he's never been in an accident, I've also never taken him up on his offer to hop on the back of his bike either.  One of the fellas who used to live next door souped up Honda motorcycles in his garage and I'd often hear Dean take off down the street, always sending a little prayer after him.  Then, a few hours later, I was thankful when he'd zip up the driveway, home safe after an afternoon's excursion. 
I've known a few people who've been injured while riding -- and mostly because of automobile drivers who don't yield the right of way.  When I was a teenager, the boy across the street was killed in a wreck while riding his motorcycle near the mall, and I'll never forget the sorrow our neighborhood experienced in the aftermath.  To this day, whenever I hear of an accident on the news, I always check to make sure that the person injured wasn't someone I know.
So when Tony asked me last week, "Are you finally going to ride with me this summer?" I was surprised when I replied, "I'll think about it."

But I've been facing my fears a lot lately.  Trying new things.  Stretching my wings.  I've made new friends.  Re-evaluated my work.  I'm choosing new thought patterns and behaviors, and for the most part, things are moving forward.  Still, like anything, it's a practice and I sometimes find myself wanting to revert back to old choices, but thankfully I've been able to reroute myself and remember that to create a healthier life often means I take one step back before I can move forward with confidence.  That's why I'm glad I've had some folks giving me a much-needed shove along the way.
A couple of months ago I went on a blind date, the first in over ten years.  I had promised myself after a string of horrible experiences, particularly the last one (you can read about it here), I would never, ever put myself through it again.  But after a little nudging and prodding from someone I've known since I was in college, I decided to just take a chance.  Still, I was so scared, I nearly threw up in the shower and wanted to call the man I was supposed to meet for dinner to reschedule.  But I got dressed, got myself in the car, and drove to the restaurant, terrified that this would be like all of the other horrible blind dates I've had, but also hoping that it wouldn't. 
Based on past experience, I was prepared that he'd be late or would stand me up.
He wasn' fact he was already at the restaurant when I arrived.
I was prepared that he'd rip on me for being a yoga teacher or a vegan or for driving a Honda, as I've had to dodge snarky comments from other men about the choices I've made over the years.
He didn' fact, he asked curious questions about all of that...and more.
I was prepared that he'd be just like all the others and have an agenda for he wanted.
But he didn't. 
Within ten minutes I found myself realizing that this could be a brand new experience. 
And it was...sort of.

So yesterday morning, when I woke up to a message from Tony asking me to take a chance and go for a ride with him on his Harley that afternoon, I finally said, "Yes."  After all, I've been on his Rolfing table for the better part of seventeen years and he's known how hard it's been for me to take myself apart and put myself back together again.  Who better to take care of me as I step into yet another new adventure?
All day long while I was working in my office, a niggling fear would rise up.  What if we're in a crash?   Then I remembered Tony's been motorcycling for years.  He's taken safety courses...and we'd be riding his newer bike, one that's more stable for the passenger.  As three o'clock rolled around, I changed into a pair of old jeans, grabbed a jacket, then headed out the door.  I was astonished to find that the only butterflies I experienced were fluttering around in my garden, not in my stomach.  The closer I got to Tony's house, the more excited I became, and when I rounded the corner and saw him warming up the trike, I felt energized, eager to head up into northern Michigan.
Safely helmeted and situated on the backseat, I grabbed the metal bars on either side of my thighs and held on tight as we took off on Sterns Road.  At first I felt like Not-So-Easy-Rider, but Tony kept glancing over his shoulder to make sure I was okay, but always kept his eyes open for other motorcyclists and drivers who weren't watching out for him.  Within a few minutes I got used to the gears shifting and realized it wasn't that much different than being a passenger in someone else's car.
Then again, cars have four doors.
It took a while to not be intimidated by the size of the bike and the roar of the engine.  To trust Tony as he accelerated along the highway.  To just let go into the experience of feeling the wind blow into my face and the freedom of not having a barrier between me and the world around me.  Clicking the sun visor into place, I enjoyed watching the rolling hills of Blissfield and Tecumseh, and within half an hour, instinctively knew how to move my body along with the twists and turns of the back roads.  Honeysuckle filled the air, then the scent of skunk blew past.
"It's an organic ride today," Tony said, laughing.
"Oh, I don't care," I laughed.  "I love skunks."
By the time we rounded Sand Lake, I was startled by the beauty and peacefulness of the water.  "We'll have to come up here and go swimming next time," Tony said. 
As he drove around to the boat dock, I realized for the first time in a long time how limiting my life has been since I returned from California.  For both tangible and intangible reasons, I've had to bide my time while slogging through so many fears, I thought I'd drown in them.  But in watching the sunlight dance on the lake, I realized I'm only just beginning to open up to bigger and better possibilities in the future, one of which includes moving into a new home near forests and a body of water.
On the ride back it was easy to just let go.  Traffic was lighter, so Tony could rev up the engine a bit more and as we cruised at seventy-five miles per hour, I found my hands resting comfortably on my legs, having let go of the metal bars miles back.  There were many times it felt as if I were flying and in an altered state of consciousness as the beauty of the experience transcended everything I had feared. 
It's no wonder Harley enthusiasts say, "Mental health is just a ride away."
When we arrived at Tony's house, he grinned and said something to the effect of "You're going to end up a real biker babe now."
"I have no desire to drive one," I smiled.  "But if you're ever heading up to the hills again and want some company, give me a call."
"I will."
"Now you've spoiled me," I grinned.  "When I get into my car, it'll feel too constricting with those four doors...but I guess I can always roll down the windows."
"Take the helmet and stick your head out of the driver's side and you can pretend you're back on the bike," Tony laughed.  But I know in a few short weeks, we'll be back on the real thing and I won't have to pretend at all.
Just like I know that I don't have to pretend I'm not afraid when I walk through my fears, one by one, knowing new experiences and infinite surprises await me on the other side.

Friday, June 5, 2015

When the teacher is ready the student appears

        It's the end of the school year for a lot of my friends who are teachers.  Grade cards have been completed, bulletin boards are covered for the summer, and the May marathon is finally over.  After a long season of spring fever, the kids have finally been set free to enjoy three months of fun in the sun.  Every June I'm reminded of a first grade class I once taught in the mid-nineties, and how saying "good-bye" to them was incredibly bittersweet.  My former six-year-olds are now in their twenties, but I still stay in touch with many of them.  I've attended college graduations, cheered them on via email as they made their way into the adult world, and continually marvel at how they keep growing older while I keep feeling younger.
But that's how it goes when the roles are reversed and the teacher becomes the student.
I knew in the fall of 1994 that my group of primary kids was unlike any other I had taught.  Methods I had learned in college and during my early years as a teacher were quickly abandoned for alternative techniques, for I found the children were quick to pick up phonics and double digit addition.  Most of them breezed through the curriculum in record time, and some were reading on the third grade level by Thanksgiving.  They kept me on my toes, but joyfully so, as I learned how to be flexible and intuitive and mindful.  What better way to pave my path to being a yoga instructor than being in the presence of twenty-four little yogis all day long?
Not that everything was perfect.
There were disagreements and frustrations among the boys and girls.  I had to be firm, but fair in following through on the boundaries and consequences in the classroom.  But the kids preferred to meet as a group to solve serious issues than to come to me to fix their problems.  Looking back on it, it was as if I was teaching in a "Little Esalen" where community was just as important as individuality. 
The last week of school was difficult for me, for I knew my first graders needed to move on and grow and learn from other teachers.  Still, there was a part of me that wanted to welcome them back into my classroom the following fall so we could all continue learning together.  To help soften the necessary ending, I asked the kids to sit in a circle on the last day of school and choose a student who taught them something during the year, something beyond academics.
One boy said, "Brent taught me how to draw sharks."
Another smiled, "Amanda taught me how to tie my shoes so they stay on tight."
A girl nodded to the friend sitting next to her.  "Kayla taught me that even when I mess up, I can try again."
Kayla smiled and nodded.  "Yeah...we all mess up sometimes."
Tim, a boy who had an ongoing challenge with another student, chose that very girl, and I wasn't at all surprised when he said, "I learned from Jenny that I don't have to like another person to learn how to get along with her."
Jenny wasn't offended at all, for she had learned the same lesson from Tim.  It took a while, but they finally made their peace around Valentine's Day when they agreed it was best to simply give each other space and respect the fact that they are very different people.  How many of us can say we know adults who are this mature?
When all of the kids had their turn, one of the girls turned to me and asked, "Miss Ingersoll...who did you learn from this year?"
With tears in my eyes (and I find that while writing this now, they're still there), I replied, "Oh, I couldn't choose any one person...I've learned so much from all of you."
Kaitlin nodded.  "I know...we taught you how to listen to your heart."
And they did.  I knew then that I wouldn't be in the classroom for the rest of my career, and while it would take another four years before I was able to make my way into a different life, I continued to carry the lessons I learned from those wonderful children.

The Zen saying is actually, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear," and I've been told by my yoga students many times over the past seventeen years that I arrived in their lives at the most opportune moment.  Many of the people who join my classes are in the midst of transition when they arrive for their first practice.  Some have lost a parent, others a job.  Some are going through a divorce or have recently been married.  Some are pregnant, while others are experiencing an empty nest.  All of them have come ready to embark on a new journey, one that might take them into darkness for a while, but one that also allows them to find peace and patience within the mystery.
I've been blessed to become friends with many of my own teachers.  My first yoga instructor and I are still great pals nearly twenty years after I ventured into her studio, exhausted and in need of balance.   I'm fortunate that I can not only call my rolfer, Tony, a good friend, but an incredible mentor as well, for I've learned more about teaching yoga from him than anyone else on the planet.  From massage therapists to my Reiki instructor to my acupuncturist, I am surrounded by a host of incredible souls who have taught me how to live more fully...and with greater appreciation for the never-ending journey we all must take. 
Still, as an instructor, I am ever-mindful to be an eternal student.  I know what I know by practice and study, but the best way for me to learn these days is through connection with other people on my path.  I've mentioned in other blogs that it's truly a joy to watch my students surpass what I can offer them and enter into the spontaneity of their own inner wisdom.  This year it happens all of the time, and like being with my first graders in 1994-95, I am in awe of who they are becoming.   The clarity with which they are able to articulate their experience is amazing and allows me to guide them even further into their own self-discovery.  The grace and beauty they embody while practicing is a sight to behold.  The strength and determination they bring to recognizing their limits is heartening, for I know they'll go to the edge when they can, and when they can't, they'll trust their bodies' messages and soften into something more simple. 
It truly is a privilege to be a teacher.

A little over a year ago I had the opportunity to teach a corporate yoga class at the Marco's Pizza headquarters.  A group of women were interested in a relaxation class after work, so we scheduled a six week series to see if it was a good fit.  I've been in and out of the traveling yoga circuit for almost sixteen years and have come to learn that it's not the longevity in the business that's important.  It's the people I'll soon connect with who resonate with my style and want to join me in my home studio for semi-private classes.  Sure enough, after the six week series was completed, a couple of lovely ladies joined me for the summer of 2014 and have been stalwart students ever since.  
A couple of weeks ago I was teaching an advanced balancing pose to my Thursday night class.  "Have you ladies done the full moon pose?" I asked.
"Doesn't sound familiar," Nancy said, shaking her head.
I turned to Becky.  "Have you seen it in the Saturday morning class?"
"No...I don't think so," she smiled.
So I tipped over and went into the first position, then showed them the more advanced work, saying, "It took me a while to get into this one, so be's all a process."
And what do you know!  Becky easily went into the first, then second, then third position with ease.  "What's next?" she asked brightly.
I laughed, "I can't show you, but I can tell you."
And just like that, as I guided her through the adjustment, Becky was able to get into the full position...on her first try! 
I don't have an agenda for my students.  Any expectations for myself are always left at the door when I go to my yoga studio, but I'm always delighted when a yogi can slip into something that took me years to master - and some days need to take two steps back in order to avoid injury.  Over the years I've seen beginners move into a perfectly balanced tree pose or fold right into a forward bend.  They are uninhibited by my limitations and simply follow where their bodies lead them.
As I often tell them, "I'm not invested so much in what you can do, but who you are and how you approach your practice."
We're all working toward headstand in the coming year and all of my students are progressing nicely in down dog variations and dolphin push-ups.  I'll demonstrate where they're headed and many will shake their heads and say, "Not in this lifetime."
I give them a gentle smile.  "Don't have all eternity."
For it's not the pose itself that teaches the student, but their approach to it, day by day, moment by moment.
I suppose that's what I learned from my students twenty years to simply be with myself, no matter the circumstances, no matter the outcome.  I learned how to hold on and to let go.  How to accept what I can't change and move through the transition with acceptance and open hands.
I may have been their teacher, but the lessons they lived while in my classroom have been beacons on my path as I journey ever-onward into the future.
Here's lovely Becky in full moon pose.